Often when discussing my job with friends, I talk about emails, not specific emails mind you, just the active daily duty of emailing. At my rehabilitation agency, we collectively send thousands of emails per day and if you are like me, often these conversations can range from the mundane to the dire emergency. What I rarely consider is the effect or impact that a single message can bring to someone reading anything I’ve sent. In this vein, I must start off by thanking Lenore, a close friend and coworker, for her random e-mail that led me to this once in a lifetime training opportunity. Thanks Lenore.
The letter Lenore forwarded me was a national call for Assistive Technology trainers to apply for a “Train the Trainer” experience sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind and Google. Without hesitation I applied. The application was extremely brief and did not ask many specific questions, so I truly didn’t think I had a great chance of getting picked. Out of 250+ applicants, 20 were chosen and l was fortunate enough to be selected as one of them. The training was an all-expenses paid trip and Google was generous enough to give each participant a Chromebook and a Nexus Phone.
The training was held in December 2016 at the Dallas branch of the American Foundation for the Blind. Like many VI professionals, I frequently peruse AFB’s online archives for a number of different resources; however, this experience was the first instance I have had to actually meet the organization face-to-face. It was refreshing and encouraging to meet people, with varying cultural and regional backgrounds, who serve the blind population around the nation. All of these unique perspectives had something to add to the discussion of accessibility. Members of the AFB staff were warm, extremely hospitable, and shared a common sense of humor that most good natured VI people possess. All 20 participants were Assistive Technology professionals with varying places of employment, some worked at Universities, residential schools for the Blind, Rehab agencies, and there were a few from private school systems. Professionally the field of accessibility is rather small and even with this broad selection of participants from across the nation, I met a few former colleagues that I had previously worked with before on another accessibility project and it is always nice to run into an old friend unexpectedly.
Google sent four individuals from their office in Mountain View, California to handle the training sessions. Each trainer was a program manager of accessibility for a different part of Google’s product line. For instance one trainer, Victor, was the project manager for Android accessibility, while another trainer, Laura, was the project manager for ChromeOS accessibility. Each trainer led sessions in their respective areas and each had a personal reason for improving accessibility within the Google platform, the most frequent reason given, was to fill the need for accessibility for other individuals who share similar disabilities. It was eye opening to watch how a team, from one of the largest tech companies in the world, chooses to train a group of professionals. The trainers encouraged collaboration with our AT peers and especially members of the Google team. There were definitely a few training techniques I will incorporate into my own workshops from the Google team, I also left them a detailed Google Doc, suggesting critiques and techniques I use.
The major focus of the training was to expose the participants to the Google environment in hopes of training more individuals to use the line of Google products and platform. For instance, one of the initial sessions was to become familiar with ChromeVox. ChromeVox is a screen reader similar to JAWS or VoiceOver that is specifically built to run on a Chromebook. Chromebooks are relatively inexpensive laptops that do not run Windows or Mac OS, but rather run an operating system called Chrome OS. In a number of public education systems, the Chromebook has been widely chosen over the iPad because of its relatively low cost. In terms of accessibility for the blind, the Apple iPad has traditionally been the go-to solution, while the Chromebook has been widely regarded as “a work in progress.” The timing of the training was structured around the release of a revamped version of ChromeVox called, ChromeVox Next. Essentially Google took a hard look at their way of providing accessibility and came to the conclusion that while it was technically accessible, it was not necessarily user friendly. They decided that their methods of providing accessibility needed some fundamental user influenced changes to become truly accessible. Putting it briefly, I personally didn’t expect to be impressed by the assistive technology features because of what I had been exposed to before; however, after seeing their new improvements, the most frequent phrase I had to share during the sessions, “this is Awesome!” If you haven’t tried ChromeVox in the past six months or so, take some time to check out this new upgrade, the difference may surprise you.
Along with the Chromebook accessibility software, the trainers introduced us to the Android platform. The Android operating system is used in thousands of handheld tablets and mobile phones. We also were given a very thorough tutorial of the screen reading software, Talkback, which is included on the Android devices. Similarly to the fundamental changes made to the ChromeVox software, Talkback recently underwent some drastic design changes to become more user friendly as well. Before, using a screen reader on an Android phone was a convoluted mess of twists and gestures, now it relatively works the same as VoiceOver on iOS with a few interesting changes and design concepts. For instance, those familiar with VoiceOver gestures can relate, instead of using two fingers to read from the top of the page, Talkback devices can be given a gentle shake to start reading. There are several design differences between Talkback and VoiceOver, but these differences could absolutely accommodate a different type of user, essentially after their training I came away with the thought, “Wow, the iPhone is not the only game in town anymore.”
Along with the two interfaces and the accessible operating systems, the Google trainers took a fair amount of time exploring the productivity software used on Google devices called G Suite. Imagine a Google version of Microsoft Office and you have G Suite. There are some incredible things that G Suite allows, that traditional Office does not such as the ability to collaborate in real time on the same document. In our training session we had 20 different participants working to edit the same document. In theory this would sound like absolute chaos, but in practice it not only worked wonderfully, but was amazingly accessible. The biggest takeaway from the G Suite training is that Google’s software is different than MS Office, not better or worse, just different with its own strengths and weaknesses.
The lasting idea that has really stuck with me, is that Google is working hard for those who are blind and visually impaired. They are well aware that their accessibility has been far less than perfect. What is refreshing though, is that I have full confidence that they are diligently working to improve how we access their revolutionary tech, and their recent improvements are proof of that. Apple products are wonderful, but they are expensive, and now Google offers comparable accessibility at a fraction of the cost. I can firmly say that buying a Chromebook if you are blind, is now a viable option. I can also say that a mobile device running pure Android is now comparable to the iPhone. Undoubtedly some readers will scoff at anything challenging the amazing accessibility of iPhone and that’s reasonable. For years Apple has been, and in many ways still is the gold standard for an accessible mobile device. However, it’s imperative to anyone working with Assistive Technology to note that competition is healthy, competition is what forces these tech giants to compete with “better” technologies. Most importantly, Assistive Technology is not a one-size-fits all concept and consumers deserve as many options as possible to find the right fit. So instead of scoffing at a rival product, try setting preconceived notions aside and you just might be surprised at what new insights you can find.